Ross W. Graham
It used to be that just before a major league baseball game began, the announcer would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the national anthem." Then everyone would stand and sing together the "Star-Spangled Banner." But in recent years, I can't remember that happening. Instead, a celebrity or a singing group comes to the mike and sings while we all just listen. What happened?
Has our culture stopped singing? Have our iPods, MP3 players, and automobile audio systems turned us into spectators and listeners? If our non-Christian friends or neighbors were to come into one of our worship services and hear us all singing together, would they have ever experienced anything like that before?
Many in evangelical and Reformed circles today believe that singing is simply Scripture truths or prayer petitions set to music. But if that is so, why not just say them or pray them? Why does God want us to sing? Others in these circles deride the poor theology of many of the hymns of the nineteenth century or the triteness of much of twentieth-century and current worship music, saying, "Maybe we are safer just limiting ourselves to singing the 150 psalms." And as the wars over music in worship wind down, it appears that we have reached the sad resolution that everyone may just go his own way on these matters. But the OPC is in the midst of producing a new Psalter-Hymnal for the twenty-first century, so the question has good reason to be asked.
It is certain that God wants us to sing: "Sing out the honor of His name; make His praise glorious" (Ps. 66:2). "Sing aloud to God our strength" (Ps. 81:1). "Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation" (Ps. 95:1). "Do not be drunk with wine ... but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:18–19). "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). And this just skims the surface of the biblical evidence that God wants us to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord.
But what is it that makes stating a truth of Scripture in song, or offering up a prayer to God in melody, so important that God would say over and over that we should do it? The investigation of this subject makes a fruitful study. But before addressing the question directly, it might be useful to consider three aspects of music and singing in a broader context.
First, the discussion of why and how music works on us as human beings is an ancient one that can be traced back thousands of years. The philosopher Plato discussed at length the idea that music has a powerful impact on the soul and that it could either ennoble or debase a person, depending on whether the music reflected what he called "universal harmony." He was fascinated with the mathematics of music and tried to discover what elements combined to make correct music.
Second, the music of Christians and singing in the church have worried Christian leaders for almost two thousand years. For instance, St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the fourth century, worried that people (including himself) were paying more attention to the melodies and the beauty of the music itself than to the words that were being sung. During the Protestant Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli, a colleague of John Calvin, feared so much the power of music to move the emotions that he outlawed its use in his churches completely. Various types of music and singing have been used and abused, banned and required, by church leaders throughout history.
Third, an aspect of singing that this study does not have space to unpack is the concept of the new song. This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible: "Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth" (Ps. 96:1). "Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! For He has done marvelous things" (Ps. 98:1). "Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the assembly of saints" (Ps. 149:1). Then in Revelation 5:9 and 14:3 we read about the new song that is sung in heaven. This is part of the divine warrior imagery. The hosts of heaven are jubilantly calling out to Jesus, who has returned home victorious from securing our salvation by his death and resurrection. They sing a new song, not just for the nation of Israel, but for the whole earth. And going one step further, Hebrews 2:12 finds Jesus saying, "I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You." Here is Jesus leading the singing in the heavenly worship, of which our worship on earth here and now is a foretaste. If you want to be like Jesus, you will sing God's praises.
So, asking the question "Why does God want us to sing?" opens up a deep and multifaceted subject, of which this study will only scratch the surface. To begin to answer that question, some understanding of the nature of music is required.
Music is language, just like speaking and writing are language. Its rises and falls in pitch, its fastness or slowness in tempo, its loudness or quietness in volume, and its happiness or sadness in key signature all communicate what the music is saying. And just as not all verbal communication is the same, so not all music is the same. For instance, "The grass is green," "I hate you," and "Fire!" are very different kinds of verbal communication. Music also has different forms that communicate different messages. It can communicate love and tenderness in the form of a ballad. It can communicate beauty or grandeur as instruments or voices combine. It can stir the emotions to courage or patriotism as in a march or the national anthem. In 1 Samuel 16:23, David used music at God's direction to calm Saul's troubled spirit.
Music speaks to the affections and the will, just as speech and writing speak to the intellect and understanding. Music tunes the affections. It speaks of the desires of the heart. It praises the thing toward which it is directed, and it makes us desire and appreciate it more. We know this concept because we've sung about it:
Come, thou fount of ev'ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace.
It's the first line of a hymn that was written more than two hundred years ago. But it is a concept that we need to understand in order to appreciate how music works on us. Just as cars need regular tune-ups to run properly and instruments need to be tuned to play beautifully, we as Christians need to have our affections tuned to love and honor God in all we do. And singing is the thing that God has designed to do that.
Think of it. Couple music, which is the language of the affections, with words, which speak to the understanding, and you have singinga very powerful form of communication! But not all singing is the same. You might make up a song that expressed your love for your dog, but a song that expressed your love for your wife would be much different. And a song that expressed your love for God would be different stillnot just the words, but the melody and the way it was sung.
So with this understanding of what music is in general and what singing is in particular, let's turn our attention to why God wants us to do itwhy just speaking or praying is not enough. The answer lies in two passages in the New Testament that have been mentioned already, but bear repeating now. Ephesians 5:18–19 says, "Do not be drunk with wine ... but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." Colossians 3:16 adds, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."
Together, these two passages give us three reasons why God wants us to sing. First, singing helps the truths of God's Word to dwell in us. The words are focused upon as the music emphasizes certain of them and rises and falls to drive home their meaning. They stay with us in singing as they do not in speaking. Say "Jesus, what a friend for sinners" and then sing it, and you can see the difference.
When we sing to the Lord, the words are important. That isn't always the case with other kinds of vocal music. In preparation for this study, I surveyed a few folks in their twenties and thirties and learned that what they like most about their music is the tunes. They can't understand the words much better at first than older folks. But once the lyrics become known and the song is understood for the ugly message it really carries, there is a backing away from liking it. It's not supposed to be that way with music that Christians sing.
God wants us to sing words with music to drive home their importance. Think of this hymn:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul."
If you carry just that one biblical truth away from singing it, you'll be better prepared to face the trials of life.
Second, singing together helps the truths of God's Word to dwell in us richly. In these two passages, the apostle Paul speaks to the plural "you all." It is assumed that the bulk of this singing is going to be done together as a group. Congregational singing is to our hearts what reciting together the Apostles' Creed is to our minds. It is stating those things that are most surely believed in the language of the affectionsthe language of the heartand counseling each other to believe them and act on them.
Third, singing helps our hearts to love and trust God and his Word. When Christians gather for worship each week, biblical sermons are vital for our spiritual lives because God tells us through them what we are to believe and do. Corporate praying glorifies God and brings us into his throne room to lay our burdens before him and trust him for his answers. But singing is that part of worship where our affections are turned toward God and where we express our love for him and our trust in him, and where we say together, "I want to do what he wants me to do." I personally do not know how I would have been prepared for some of the tragedies and heartaches that have come to me during the course of my life if I had not sung often with God's people such powerful words as
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
he, my Savior, makes me whole.
Even when my heart is breaking,
he, my comfort, helps my soul.
Many Christians have their own favorite lyrics that have been sung at just the right time. But if you have not experienced this weekly tune-up for the soul, let me urge you to learn how to sing with your heart to the Lord. So let's draw three brief applications from this study.
First, be careful what music you listen to. This study is not intended to tell you what is good music and bad music, or what kinds we should or should not sing in worship or in our homes. But there is no such thing as neutral music. It will work on your affections. It will make you want something or feel something or put you in the mood for something. Just make sure that the kinds of music you listen to are good for your soul.
Second, mean the words that you sing. God's design for your singing is to marry melodies to truths from his Word to heighten your religious affections. Make the words your own. Truly sing them to God. We are not just to love the tune and ignore the words. For us, the words count.
Third, tell yourself, "It's not just about me; it's about my brothers and sisters in the Lord, too." You may not feel like singing as you come to worship. But it may be that my heart is breaking, that I am struggling with difficulty, and that I can barely open my mouth because of my grief or pain. I may need you to sing for me until I can sing for myself. Your singing with the rest of your brothers and sisters may help someone else who needs his heart tuned again to love the Lord Jesus.
For more than a year now, the session of Immanuel OPC in Medford, New Jersey, on which I serve, has had the congregation sing the first verse of "O God beyond All Praising" at the opening of each morning worship service, and the second verse at the closing. I've noticed recently that most people in the congregation now sing it from memory. As one of their elders, I take great comfort in their singing together at the close of worship:
And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill,
We'll triumph through our sorrows and rise
to bless you still.
I'm not sure I know the full meaning of those words. But as a shepherd of that flock, I have an extra measure of confidence that because we have sung this great truth to God and to each other, they will be better able to handle that car accident, that miscarriage, that loss of a job, or that cancer diagnosis. We've sung it, and by singing it our hearts have been tuned to love and trust God in every circumstance of life. May God help us to keep singing.
The author is general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2010.